If you were to pick a designer to act as poster child for the millennial generation, it would have to be Alexander Wang. College dropout, self-made mogul, party animal: Wang’s backstory reads like a textbook on the unusual career paths of fellow millennials such as Mark Zuckerberg, pioneers who have turned entire industries upside down and disrupted the status quo.
Kids, however, eventually grow up, and while companies like Facebook have become juggernauts soon after turning 10, the scrappy and fun attitude that usually peters out after a decade in business is still at the core of Alexander Wang, both the man and the label.
The image of Wang as a baby-faced Asian-American prodigy who made it big and became a household name while still a twenty-something club kid is still ingrained in the consciousness of many of his fans and detractors alike, but underneath this facade lies a driven man, whose ability to mix high and low, pop and couture, has exerted as much influence on the industry as the work of designers often praised for their flights of fancy.
Just look at what’s happening right now: streetwear, sportswear, hip-hop, rave culture. Alexander Wang has been mining those references since his early days, creating a look that’s quickly identifiable as uniquely his, an effortlessly put-together aesthetic that has become known as “model off-duty”. We have to thank Wang for the countless pictures of mannequins on the street during fashion week clad in slouchy tank tops, distressed leather jackets, skinny ripped jeans and biker boots.
In 2005, the California-born Wang interrupted his studies at Parsons in New York to launch a small collection of six unisex sweaters that he peddled himself to boutiques around Manhattan. Instead of going the usual route of a fashion degree followed by a job at an established label, he figured that he was ready to do things his own way. “[The established route] wasn’t necessarily a path I wanted to go down, because I wanted to take a path that there might be more of a question mark at the end – like, where could this take me, what could this mean?” says Wang when we met him early last spring in New York’s Tribeca neighbourhood, where his studio is located. “Because if I stay in school and finish, I know that at that point I’m going to have to go find a job and work for a designer brand. At the time, I was interning a lot while I was in school and working retail and I very much felt stimulated by those experiences, so I thought, ‘Well, what if I just created a small collection and sold it on consignment to a few stores and I could just kind of get a sense, learn the business?’”
Although most 22-year-old aspiring designers may think business is secondary to their craft, the idea of building a commercially successful label was very much on Wang’s mind from day one. While interning at Teen Vogue, he recalls how many high-end brands would refuse to lend clothes to the magazine, feeling that its readers were not their target customers. “I always grew up aspiring and looking at the big luxury brands and loving them, but obviously not being able to afford them – and this was before the time of H&M and Topshop. If you couldn’t afford them, then you were left with not a lot of options, so I wanted to do something that me and my friends could afford, that we were still excited by,” says Wang, who also wants to set the record straight about the help he supposedly received from his family.
“There’s this story where everyone thinks that my mom works in production in China because she lives in China and she hooked me up with all these factories, but to be honest my family comes nowhere near anyone in fashion. I mean no one in fashion – no aunts, cousins, nothing. So a lot of it was just figuring it out. And I started with knitwear because it’s a yarn that you directly work with – a vertical operation essentially, it’s not like you do tailoring or you have to go and buy the fabric from here, or pattern from here. Knitwear was something I could handle and I started with just six sweaters and this idea that I would do unisex and it was the same core wardrobe knitwear pieces that you would need, like an oversized cardigan, a hoodie, a crewneck …”
That the key pieces of his first collection are still the foundations of the brand speaks to Wang’s strong DNA and ability to develop a signature style while evolving season after season, introducing popular bags such as the bottom-studded Rocco, and even launching a line of basics, T by Alexander Wang, that has built a brisk business by nailing the formula for essentials such as the perfect T-shirt and sweatshirt. The elevation of basics has always been a forte of Wang’s, who in only a decade has experienced all facets of the industry, from the grandeur of the couture salons of Parisian house Balenciaga, where he worked as creative director for three years, to the mass appeal of high-street giant H&M, with one of the most successful collaborations in the fast-fashion retailer’s history.
“I’ve always tried to look at fashion in a way so that things that feel very luxurious or pretentious, I like to suck that out of that context. And then things that are very everyday and casual and feel normal, I like to elevate – so there’s always that cross pollination of those two influences,” he explains. “Athletics is also something that I’ve always been very intrigued by, because it’s the industry that has the most advanced technology in terms of material, because it’s so dependent on performance and utility, and it’s all about heritage and function – every pocket, every mesh lining, the way the zipper is, there’s always a reason for it.”
Whether he’s planning his headline-grabbing shows (and equally talked-about after-parties) or hanging out – and collaborating – with his posse of downtown friends, Wang is a designer of his generation, the kid who crashed the party and was the life of it too, still enthusiastic as he was when it all began.
“I just try to be myself and really express things that feel very authentic to emotions, to aesthetics, colours, things I like,” says Wang. “I feel very connected to my generation, I’m always inspired by pop culture and nightlife. I like to go out and I feel like there’s something very raw and real about nightlife. Other generations say that New York nightlife has changed, and maybe it has, but I still feel like a lot of things get born out of nightlife so it’s like a melting pot of everything I am inspired by, and that intrigues me.”
Looking from afar, it seems that Wang has had a blessed life and career, with nary a wrong move, abiding by the work hard/play hard ethos by which so many fellow New Yorkers live. “One thing I’m very blessed with is that I don’t get hungover often so I can go out and party and I can come to work the next day and be focused,” he jokes. “I take what I do very seriously. When it comes to work, it’s strictly work; I’m very to-the-point, decisive and focused. And when I’m out and I’m partying, I’m partying. I try not to mix the two. To balance out my life, I need to have both.”
He’s also adamant that in an industry such as fashion, where things change at breakneck speed and hot brands, especially in New York, come and go in a handful of seasons, designers shouldn’t live secluded in ivory towers, without dealing with the everyday reality of running a business. “I’m not just interested in creative, but I like to understand how a business is built, and I’ve never discounted the fact of being a businessperson,” he explains. “Some of the greatest people I respect and look up to, like Steve Jobs or James Jebbia, they’re creative, but they also have a very innate sense of business and who they’re speaking to, who their audience is, what their business should be structured like. And I learned so much from the people that I work with. I work with them because I want to learn from them and vice versa, and that’s the part that drives me. It’s that learning process and everyone who works with me – whether they’re a creative person, a merchandiser, a press person – I always like to cross-pollinate, they need to all sit down, and no one’s protected, no one’s secluded, which I found very different from other places I’ve witnessed. What feels dated to me is that creative people need to be protected.”
Admitting that he stills checks out his products on the rails of stores such as Bloomingdale’s (his first major stockist) or Barneys, Wang is the ultimate overachiever, the fashion version of an Ivy League dropout who’s ever the striver, never resting on his laurels and still aware of the rare opportunities he’s managed to wrangle in such a short time thanks to a winning mix of talent, charm and luck. “I feel like I’ll always be that person who’s going to want to go visit the stores and see how all the stuff is doing,” he says of his incognito shop visits in his beloved Manhattan. You can just picture the hoodie-clad and ponytailed Wang trying to be just a regular shopper and escaping for a few hours from his perch atop the most quintessentially New York brand of the 21st century.